“Like I have been telling you, a year to a year-and-a-half,” Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease informed US President Donald Trump. Fauci was part of a panel of biotechnology representatives called to the White House on March 2 to advise the American leader on pharmaceutical efforts to stop the coronavirus.
Trump Wants a Quicker Fix for Coronavirus
Fauci’s response, that it would take a year-and-a-half to have a working vaccine available for the general public, did not satisfy Trump, who preferred a two-month launch instead.
Moments earlier, Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Modern Pharmaceuticals, had told Trump his company could have a vaccine ready for testing within months. This likely either confused Trump or perhaps he misunderstood. A vaccine ready for clinical trials is hardly a solution for the general public.
What’s more, early vaccines are by no means guaranteed to work. As the panic surrounding the Corvid-19 virus continues, Trump isn’t the only one pushing for a quick fix, but due to government testing protocols, there is virtually no chance at beating the initial mid-2021 forecast.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. Similar outbreaks — and startling similar viruses altogether, in fact — have run the same, multi-year course as Corvid-19. The world has had plenty of practice over the past 10 years after fighting MERS, SARS, and H1N1 outbreaks.
Similarity To MERS
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) is similar to the coronavirus. The first case of MERS was reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Although it is a respiratory disease like Corvid-19, MERS has a few key differences.
First, it is transmitted via close contact with already-infected patients. Consequently, the virus is uncommon in people outside of the medical profession. Although under 2,000 cases have been reported worldwide as of April 2017, the disease is significantly deadlier with a mortality rate of 36%.
Although a MERS vaccine never made it through clinical trials,—nor did any pharmaceutical treatment for patients— teams of researchers across the world have already laid a lot of groundwork for coronavirus vaccines that could pave the way for a faster rollout of a Corvid-19 concoction.
Kizzmekia Corbett, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research fellow, helped lead the development of potential MERS vaccines. Corbett’s strategy focused on delivering a vaccine with an RNA or mRNA code, which causes patients to produce spike protein. Antibodies will then attack the intruding virus and essentially be trained to kill future instances of it.
Moderna is using the same strategy and investors are hyped that it could be the winning horse in the race to cure Corvid-19. Shares of the company spiked 30% after the outbreak in February. Within 42 days, Bancel’s company had a candidate ready for human trials possibly before the end of March, according to the MIT Technology Review.
Cutting Edge Vaccine Tech
However, RNA or mRNA vaccines are still on the cutting edge of vaccine technology.
“You don’t have a single licensed vaccine with that technology,” argued Peter Hotez, chief of Baylor University’s National School of Tropical Medicine, at a congressional hearing.
He also reprimanded companies for giving false hopes of a quick cure. Moderna, in particular, has not had the same success in humans as it has in animals when it comes to using RNA delivery for other vaccine tests.
“It’s not going to happen in a couple of months. It’s not going to happen by the summer. It’s a promising but unproven modality,” said Ron Weiss, synthetic biologist at MIT and cofounder of Strand. “I am excited about it as a modality, but just as with any new modality, you have to be very careful. Do you get enough expression? Does it persist? Does it elicit any adverse responses?”
A Quick Fix Is Possible
Developing a vaccine under pressure has been done before, however. The 2009 H1N1 global pandemic was brought to an end after killing up to half a million people. The virus broke out in May 2009 and by November, three billion vaccine doses were produced worldwide.
Alternatively, Corvid-19 could simply die out as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) did before it. After spreading from China in November 2002, SARS killed 774 patients. Containment measures virtually eliminated the disease by July 2003 and development of vaccine candidates was halted.
The severity of Corvid-19, however, dwarfs SARS and MERS combined. Already, it has killed three times more people than both of them with nearly 10 times the infection rate.
Although a lot of the work has already been done to develop new vaccine responses for the coronavirus, whether pharmaceutical companies can deliver them in time as they did with H1N1 is the question. Perhaps the world can ride out the virus. The disease may pass and a vaccine can likely be repurposed as in the case of Corvid-19. The results of new technology trials are invaluable for fighting future diseases.